Tourist in Your Country of Birth? A Walking Tour of the Maboneng Precinct

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For my 37th birthday in January, my friend Mandy gave me one of the best gifts I could have asked for: a walking tour of the Maboneng Precinct, south east of the Joburg CBD. I had been to the Sunday morning market at Arts on Main once with David and Chiara in 2013 (Chiara was about 2). I thought it was cool but a little limited: once we’d picked something to eat, there were a few shops to browse but mostly up a flight of stairs – so not really a pram destination.

My second visit was in September 2015. I wanted to show my Cape Town foodie friend & lifestyle chef/ consultant, Maureen, that Jozi also has some funky destinations and that it’s not all about strip malls. We had two kids and two prams between us, it was a scorcher of a day and after the kids had messed “ice cream” (actually organic frozen yoghurt or such-like) all over themselves, they were frankly OVER the excursion.

Then, a few weeks ago, I went to Maboneng to watch a documentary at The Bioscope (The Boers at the End of the World: very interesting doci about a tiny group of Afrikaans-speaking Argentinians in Patagonia). It was a Friday night and the place was PUMPING. Such a great vibe with so many bars and eateries to choose from… (Note to coffee lovers: The Bioscope possibly offers one of the best tasting cappuccinos I’ve had in Joburg. Yes, I was drinking coffee at 7pm at night – I have small children). It was then, that I started to understand the hype about Maboneng, “Place of Light”.

This bar was HUMMING on Fri 18 March
(This bar next door to the Bioscope was humming on a summery Friday night in March)

Returning to Maboneng for our walking tour on a Friday morning in April, sans enfants, felt really decadent. Mandy and I Uber-ed (I think it’s a verb now, right?) to Fox Street with only our handbags in tow (not even wet wipes :)) and met our guide, Jo, at Origins Coffee. (I recall going back to Cape Town in my early days as a Jozi immigrant and being told I had not lived until I had sampled Origins coffee in De Waterkant. I love local “imports”).

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Jo is the founder of Past Experiences, one of a handful of inner city walking tour companies. I love that she majored in History and Archeology. (She has a keen interest in street art and graffiti about which I knew absolutely nothing before the tour. The photo above is a “tag” –  a street artist’s signature).

As we arrived, Mandy and I spied some of my two most favourite words in the English language “ROOFTOP BAR”. We ventured upstairs and it transpired that Canteen (the restaurant inside the Arts on Main courtyard) has a cute, little rooftop area.

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Jo then led us to the shops and galleries on the first floor. I bought these gorgeous, colourful mini canvasses (pictured below) featuring different hand signs for taxis, as well as one of Madiba. I love the bright colours against the dark grey cladding in our guest loo, where they are now hanging. I spied them in artist, May Wentworth’s, store: The Inappropriate Gallery & Decor. The large canvas of the woman in a red jacket is one of May’s own artworks which I was admiring too. I couldn’t resist a carved noughts and crosses board which I’ve been using to teach Chiara (who just turned 5) to play.

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The Inappropriate Gallery also stocks gorgeous platters, bowls etc by The Ceramic Factory (main Joburg store is in Linden). Here’s an example of their wares from their Facebook page:

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As for the prices, perhaps I am punch drunk by the exorbitant prices we get charged for pretty little things in Sandton, the Parks etc, but I felt like I had US dollars to spend but was paying in Rands:  I couldn’t believe what great value everything was. (Jo, on the other hand, is more used to shopping in the inner city and surrounds and couldn’t quite understand my bargain hunter’s excitement…).

Next stop was at I Was Shot in Joburg. I absolutely love this “brand”. So much so that I actually bought the T-shirt. (I never, ever buy the T-shirt…that’s me wearing it in the picture below – yes, the 10 year old in me wanted to wear it straight away!) That’s how much I love their story, purpose and now, their product range. If you don’t know who they are, they say it best: “I Was Shot provides a platform for former street children (from Hillbrow) to earn an income”. They started out by using disposable cameras to photograph their surroundings. Now, the photos form the basis for gorgeous, trendy and totally “usable” products. Besides my T-shirt, I bought funky photo frames and fridge magnets. (Their products are also on sale at their pop-up store in Rosebank’s mall, opposite Clicks. I love them as gifts for Saffers living abroad or foreigners – so easy to fit in your suitcase and so reflective of modern South Africa.)

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After our shopping spree, Jo walked us through the precinct to The Collector’s Treasury. I’m not proud to say I’d never heard of it, but I gather it’s sort of famous amongst book lovers and/or hipsters and collectors. Prepare for total chaos as you enter – and throughout the store – with piles of books, lining almost every inch of available space. According to Jo, the owners (if they happen to be on duty when you visit) kind of know what they have in stock and where to find it. Definitely worth a visit for the experience even if the product range and method of display is totally overwhelming.

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We then walked over beautiful pavement mosaics (somewhat in disrepair, sadly) into what I didn’t initially realise was part of the Maboneng Precint. As part of her studies, Jo did a mini thesis on New Doornfontein which she described as once being a very poor, but culturally and artistically rich, slum in the early 1900’s. It’s now home to a private school targeting lower middle income families, an arts centre for local children, as well as some great street art. We finished the tour outside Access City with its huge mural of Mandela as a young boxer and Trim Park: free, brand new, outdoor gym facilities.

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Before dashing back to fetch the kids, we shared a quick lunch at James XVI’s Ethiopian Cafe, next door to a very Paul Smith-esque cycling store:

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I feel like we only just scratched the surface of what Maboneng has to offer and I was thrilled to return ten days later for the #JoziMeetup at The Open, organised by South African Mom Bloggers. (The Open is an amazing space and if I lived closer to the CBD, I would love to spend my mornings writing there. For more about the amazing #JoziMeetup, check out Sharon’s post at The Blessed Barrenness).

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I leave you with the first piece of street art we came across in Fox St: “Tourist in Your Country of Birth?” The irony was most certainly not lost on me…

"Tourist in your country of birth?"
“Tourist in your country of birth?”

If you need a push of inspiration to venture out of your hood and to be a tourist in home country, check out 2summers.net, for American blogger and Jozi dweller, Heather Mason’s post about her rooftop tour of Joburg with Dlala Nje. (It was a custom tour, but I raced over to “like” their Facebook page and cannot wait for a potential repeat.)

South Africa Through the Eyes of a Joburg Cab Driver

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Amidst the horror of the most recent spate of xenophobic violence that has gripped South Africa, I wanted to write a positive piece about people, preconceptions and othering.

It is 2003 and I have just moved to Joburg after a year in London and Rome and before that, four years in Cape Town.

Growing up, we made the long trip from Keurbooms to Joburg a few times to visit family and to experience some city buzz. The last time I visited Joburg with my parents I was ten years old. It was 1989 and there was a bomb scare while we shopping in one of the northern suburbs malls. In high school we were made to read some horrific Nadine Gordimer short story involving high walls and electric fences. I forget the details but either the dog or the owner of the dog is frazzled by their own electric fence. The story was set in Joburg. To me, it may as well have been Bogota or Baghdad. A society of such violence felt foreign and far away from the safety of my surroundings in Keurbooms, Plett, George and even, later, Cape Town. Joburg was the wild west. A menacing metropolis that someone from the Western Cape (or certainly, almost anyone I knew) would never imagine living in.

But love is a powerful thing. And that is what leads me to move to the Big Smoke in 2003. I recall a brief conversation with a stranger on a subway platform in Rome. He must have asked me where I was from/ moving to and I must have answered “Johannesburg”. He responded by telling me that it was the second most dangerous city in the world.

Nonetheless, I arrive in Joburg in June 2003 with the contents of a backpack and a boyfriend with a townhouse in Illovo. No job and – more critically – no wheels. I don’t know Hillbrow from Hobart Road and I am going for interviews anywhere and everywhere around the city.

About a week into my arrival, I am to meet a recruitment agent at a coffee shop in Bedfordview. I don’t remember how I get there but I do recall that my only way of getting back is to order a cab. So, after the meeting I phone a taxi company and a driver duly arrives to collect me. In an effort to be very nouveau South Africa or something, I climb into the front seat of his car.

“Look,” my 24 year-old self is trying to say, “we are equal. I’m not sitting at the back like some Apartheid-era Madam!” If he thinks anything of this gesture, he does not let on.

I don’t really recall what we speak about during the drive but what happens next will remain with me forever. We are stopped at a red light and, somehow, he gets started talking to a the driver of the vehicle next to me. They are speaking loudly and animatedly in Zulu.

“Did you understand what we just said?” he asks me as we pull away.

I reply that I am embarrassed to say that I did not. Not a word.

And then he turns to me and says, “And we could have been planning to murder you and you wouldn’t even have known?”

I smile.

And he smiles back.

I feel exhilarated. In that one moment in my first week in Joburg, this taxi driver has laid bare our country’s issues of violence, equality, language, race, class, education and has challenged me to confront them.

I dream that one day, we will all live in that South Africa. A South Africa in which we speak to one another as equals, regardless of the colour of our skins or whether we are expats or refugees seeking a better life here. A South Africa in which everyone feels truly free.

A South African in Barcelona


I experienced some panic in my first few hours in Barcelona. There were strong signals that my girls weekend could turn into a solo expedition – The Sister and two friends were supposed to be arriving from London but EasyJet had started cancelling some of their London-Spain flights because of an air traffic control strike by the French! (Not just Transnet who enjoys a bit of strike action, apparently). Planes have to fly over France to get from London to Barcelona, so the girls were in danger of being properly stranded. Then there was the Best Friend who’d missed her Barcelona connection because a diabetic medical emergency had stopped her from disembarking in London. She was also now potentially stranded in London because of the frigging Frenchies on strike.

Despite these bad tidings, I decided to make the most of this new city and left the apartment to go and explore. Armed with absolutely no information on Barcelona (besides Vicky Cristina Barcelona – duh) I decided to do what women do best: ask. I walked into a café on my street corner and, in very broken Spanish (with some Italian thrown in for good measure), I said something which probably sounded like:

“Where is walk, city, famous, beautiful, tourist, nearby?”

The Gran and Gramps behind the bar could not have been more charming and, happily, they seemed to understand precisely what I was saying – when in doubt, use muchos key words. Within minutes, I had enough information on nearby attractions to keep me occupied for many hours – that is, if ever left the café because Gran and Gramps couldn't stop chatting. After a long chin-wag, they asked me where I was from. I told them I was from South Africa. Response to my nationality abroad never cease to amaze me. The Apartheid regime was almost as internationally infamous as the Nazi regime and yet tons of people the world over seem to be surprised that there are white people in South Africa. Gramps, for one, was having none of it. He was convinced that I was having him on. I've experienced this reaction so many times that sometimes I get a bit impatient, but this old man was such a honey that I tried to humour him. I told him that I knew it sounded incredible but that it was absolutely, one hundred percent true.

Still, looked skeptical. Finally, he decided to demonstrate to me just how silly my little story sounded.

“If you’re South African,” he said, “then I’m Chinese!” and he pulled up the corners of his eyes on either side and nearly killed himself laughing.

I was liking the Barcelonians more and more.

By now it was about 5pm and I wanted to check whether the girls would be able to catch a bite to eat chez Gran and Gramps when they (hopefully) jetted in at about 11pm. So I asked them what time they closed shop, to which Gran replied, “Oh, we close at 1.”

I was like, “One a.m. in the manana? Seriously?” I could barely remember the last time I was awake at that hour, let alone working. I felt tired for her.

Welcome to Barcelona:
9:30am: the city's a morgue, except for a few tourists
10am – 12pm: shops open for a little taste of the work day
12pm – 4pm: Leisurely lunch and then SIESTA, baby! (who can argue with them there?)
4pm – 8pm: shops open
11/ 12pm: dinner
1am/ 2am: clubs open
4am/ 5am: the dance floor is packed
8:30am: clubs close for the night, er…I mean, the day…

Serious body clock adjustment required for us Anglo-saxons!